Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Symphony No.4 in G major

Anny Schlemm (Soprano)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Leopold Ludwig
BERLIN CLASSICS BC 2119-6 [50.51]

Leopold Ludwig will be fondly remembered by Mahlerites of a certain age for a recording of the Ninth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra that achieved wide circulation in the 1960s, first through Everest and then through the much-missed World Record Club. Coupled with Rudolf Schwarz's recording of the Fifth Symphony on the latter label it served us very well when there was little else available. This recording of the Fourth was made in Dresden in 1957 and has appeared sporadically over the years, never achieving as wide a circulation as the Ninth; not really surprising as there have always been more recordings of this symphony to choose from.

In 1957 Mahler's music was still quite rare in the concert hall and these Dresden players especially must have approached the work as something of a novelty. Maybe this partly accounts for the fact that this is a very straightforward, supremely unmannered performance compared with many other versions - an antidote to those who take the view that every expressive opportunity in Mahler's scores must be attended to as though under a magnifying glass. But that can't be the only explanation. Leopold Ludwig was a fine conductor with a high reputation and must have decided his own approach from the start. That said I still cannot help wondering whether he felt he couldn't really test the players as much as he may have liked in music they hardly knew. More experienced Mahler listeners may be disappointed with the "hands-off" approach that emerges, therefore. But there are still some dividends to be had from this recording, especially when the orchestra concerned is one of the greatest that, even in late 1950s East Germany, had clearly maintained its standards through hard times.

That Mahler's Fourth could be played more idiomatically, more searchingly, at this time is proved by a wonderful contemporary recording from Kletzki on Royal Classics (ROY 6468) and also from a recording by Van Beinum that predates it by a few years. However, almost contemporary with this Ludwig recording is Reiner's on RCA Victor (09026 63533 2) and that is the one it most resembles in spirit. Though Reiner has the better orchestra and sound and stresses clarity to an even greater degree.

It's quite interesting today to hear a performance taking Mahler at apparent face value in the first movement. Mahler does appear to have written something that implies sunshine and that is certainly what you get from Ludwig. It's almost as if he is determined to tell us there are absolutely no clouds and no storms on this horizon. The brisk tempo he sets and keeps, one probably closer to what Mahler intended than we may now be used to, certainly helps. This is very much a feeling that is continued in the second movement too. Other recordings will offer you more edge to the "Friend Death" off-key solo violin passages, as well as greater character to the woodwind textures, but what we have in this movement is very much in keeping with what has gone before and what will come - plain, unadorned, uncomplicated playing. It was only in the third movement that I felt the lack of any personal involvement most strongly. Again the tempo is kept moving along and whilst there is still some warmth and consolation to be felt it is only the fine phrasing of the Dresden strings that prevents this wonderful music leaving us feeling short-changed. The movement doesn't really linger in the mind as it really can. Then in the last movement there is a little hesitancy in the delivery of the bursts of reprise from the first movement that punctuates the Wunderhorn setting. The only tangible impression of unfamiliarity with this music on the part of the players, I feel. It's almost as if the music takes them by surprise. Anny Schlemm is no more than an adequate soloist and certainly doesn't manage to deliver the heart's ease that other sopranos can at the very close. Unfamiliarity with the genre again, perhaps? Mahler's Wunderhorn settings are a very particular mix of humour and fantasy which it has taken a generation for singers and players to really master.

The recorded sound is spacious and clear though rather unsophisticated when compared with modern stereo recordings. Acceptable if you feel like giving this early recording of the Fourth a try. In my synoptic survey of this work I recommend recordings by Kubelik (DG), Horenstein (Chief), Kletzki (Royal), Britten (BBC Legends) and Szell (Sony) and see no reason to change that conclusion at the moment.

An interesting recording of Mahler's most popular symphony from an era prior to the Mahler boom and from behind the Iron Curtain.

Tony Duggan


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